Photos That Look Like Paintings – The Rights And Wrongs

As a photographer, you have undoubtedly heard some well-meaning soul tell you, “Your photograph looks just like a painting.”

It is meant as a compliment, of course, but Arnie (Margo’s husband and photography partner) and I take a different view about photos that look like paintings.  There are many art forms – sculpture, etching, pen and ink, painting, pottery, among many others, and yes, for sure, photography.

Image of mist and fog on lake entitled "Misty Island" . photos that look like paintings
© 1988 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All Rights Reserved. Misty Islands

Museums devote whole galleries to photography. We were in Boston a couple of months ago and saw the incredible Photography from the Bank of America Collection at the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts). In fact, the MFA was one of the first museums in the United States to collect photography, inspired by Alfred Stieglitz’s gift to them in 1924 of twenty-seven of his photographs.

Think about George Eastman House, International Center for Photography (ICP), Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for starters. There’s the Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. These only scratch the surface of great museums that house amazing photography collections.

Then there are the galleries: A Gallery for Fine Photography (yes, that’s the letter A) in the Big Easy; Robert Klein Gallery in Beantown; The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins; Viewpoint Photographic Art Center in Sacramento; and so many others.

OK, you get the point. Both museums and galleries think enough of photography as an art form that they devote considerable space to the medium. So why do so many people feel that they need to compare your photograph to a painting in order to value it as an art form? I certainly don’t have the answer to that one, but Arnie and I make it a personal campaign to try to educate people.

Photos That Look Like Paintings

So when it comes to photos that look like paintings, are some photographs more artistic than others? Undoubtedly yes, as are some paintings, or some sculptures, or some …

Perhaps it is the proliferation of digital cameras. On the one hand, it makes photography accessible to more people, and that cannot be a bad thing. After all, photography is a form of expression.

On the other hand, we wonder if it has not helped devalue photography some. Again, no easy answers here, but certainly matter for rumination.

Image of window with potted flowers in France entitled "Old Provence" by Margo Taussig Pinkerton.
© 2006 Margo Taussig Pinkerton. All Rights Reserved Old Provence

This photograph, just as the one at the top, has often been praised with the statement, “It looks just like a painting.”

My mother was a very accomplished painter, and while we often did road trips together gathering fodder for our work, the end results never looked the same, even though the composition might be essentially the same. After all, my mother often used my photographs as inspiration for her watercolors and oils.

No one ever said to her, “My, your work looks just like a photograph!”

We had been dining with friends, a couple. For a special birthday, I had given this photograph to her as a present. It is proudly displayed in their front hall, the first thing that guests see when they enter their house. It is hung in a place of honor.

I commented on how pleased I was that they cherished that photograph so much.

“Why, of course,” the husband replied, “It is art.”

What a wonderful statement, I thought.

He gets it, as do many others, of course, who value photography as an art form. I just wish more would “get it.” Often, I feel like the Salmon fighting its way up the falls.

I suspect many would not compare photography to a painting. I think they are among those who value photography as photography, as another art medium to be treasured and enjoyed in its own right.

It may appear to be a rocky road, but as photographers of fine art, it is just another ‘technique’ that needs to be applied – to educate friends, family and those you meet by chatting about photography as an art form. One person at time, the awareness and appreciation of the art of photography will flourish in the eyes of the general public.

photos that look like paintings , by Margo Taussig Pinkerton
(aka, TBC–The Barefoot Contessa)

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